So, You Want to Teach Yoga to Veterans? 6 Things You Need to Know First ~ Chris K.
I served in the Army for many years, endured many hardships, and practiced yoga the whole time I served – including a stint in Iraq.
And for the most part, I hid the practice I first learned from my mother for fear of being socially ostracized in the macho culture of the military. Years later, I learned of others that hid their yoga practice and as yoga became more accepted in the military, we began to come out of the yoga closet.
But of course war breaks open even the hardest hearts and I saw many tough guys there learn how to cry, including me. It was not long before yoga became more accepted in military settings and I soon found myself teaching small groups in Baghdad during the early morning hours just before the mortars started falling.
Fast forward to a few years later and I’m working as a full time yoga teacher and even opened my own studio. Only now, I was hiding my military background since it too could lead to social and professional exclusion. I even recall one of the teachers at my studio who was railing on one day about how much she “hated” military people and asked me “don’t you just hate them too?” I was at a loss for words.
It was not long after that a few old military buddies of mine rolled through town and came to classes at my studio. It was great to see tough old Marine pilots and Army Rangers chanting Om with the rest of the class, giving the practice their best, and telling me afterwards how much they liked it. The military sure had come a long way on accepting yoga, now the question was when yoga people would truly accept the military as well.
Thankfully now, some of these attitudes are changing and different yoga groups have begun engaging military and veteran communities and even offering trainings in how to share the practice with this very special group of people – those who have served their country in uniform. And while these efforts are encouraging, some of the lingering old attitudes remain which make it harder for veterans to be open to the practice.
So, on behalf of my fellow veterans I want to offer the following thoughts for anyone who may want to teach yoga to veterans:
We don’t all have PTSD:
Its become very common these days for people to think of every veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This has perpetuated a social stigma on vets that has been hard to shake and made employers less likely to want to hire them which is part of why the unemployment rate for veterans is 10% – three full points above the national average. According to a number of studies, the percentage of veterans diagnosed or believed to have PTSD is somewhere between 14-20% – hardly all of us.
Don’t Pity Us And Please Don’t Lump us In With The Prison Population:
How would you feel if your service and sacrifice ended up with you being grouped in with convicted rapists and murderers? And this is not to say we should ignore those populations who include many wrongly convicted people who should not even be there, but its very insulting to veterans to be discussed in the same breath as prison populations when discussing how yoga can help certain groups.
Don’t Patronize Us:
We all know you mean well but please don’t look down your nose at us from your spiritual pedestal. So when you speak to us, please do it without a tone that says you’re talking to a bunch of poor misguided souls who were dumb enough to join in the first place.
You can’t be a warrior unless you love deeply. We love those around us and feel so strongly about it that we’ll risk life and limb to protect them. That is why we joined and why we serve. We don’t fight for a flag – we do it for each other, for our families, for our friends, and for complete strangers we’ve never met.
We do it for you. It our dharma, our duty, and we do our best to serve as faithfully, as Arjuna did at Kurukshetra.
Please Don’t Ask Us How Many People/Babies We’ve Killed:
If the veteran you’re speaking to has had to take another life, its not something they would ever choose to do on their own and its something they don’t feel great about. So, its completely inappropriate to ask.
Fifty years after fighting in World War II and personally freeing thousands of Jews from concentration camps, my father never wanted to talk about such things except with his priest. So please, don’t try to pick at someone else’s scabs. If they want to share it of their own accord, that’s their choice, but please don’t pry.
Rest assured, its not just our karmic debt to bear but its yours too since all citizens bear the karma of their government. Either through desire or neglect, you allowed us to be sent to war to act on your behalf.
Let Us Help Heal Ourselves:
One thing that is disheartening is how seldom veterans are actually encouraged or allowed to help their fellow vets. Some think so little of us that they won’t let us teach each other. Look at the board of just about any yoga for veterans organization and you won’t find a single veteran there but you’ll find plenty of famous yoga teachers. Warriors at Ease, a veteran run organization, is one shining exception.
And why is it when someone finds out you are a vet and a yoga teacher, they want to keep you away from helping them work with vets? Do they think we’re all too damaged to help? I’ve encountered this several times and more than a few of my fellow vets and yoga teachers have too. In one case, a yoga teacher and vet friend in California was aggressively rebuked and turned away by a colleague simply because she asked to come along to take part in a meditation group at a local VA facility.
Another veteran and yoga teacher (with specialized training in yoga for vets) in the Norfolk, Virginia area has been trying for years to get into a VA or military facility in the area to teach yoga to vets but has been shut out for years. Meanwhile, young new teachers who are not vets have been hired left and right. And these are just a few cases but there are so many more.
Its almost like saying “I’m sorry, you’ve had a baby so you can’t teach prenatal yoga.”
There are not too many of us who are both members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Yoga Alliance and instead of being shut out, we’d love to come in and help.
How You Can Help:
First off, thank you so much for wanting to help veterans through teaching yoga. It means a lot to all of us that you’ve chosen to work with us when you could be off doing something much more glamorous.
Please realize that we’re not broken, we just need to make sense of the things we’ve seen and had to do and now we’re trying to live a “normal” life. Even if we don’t have PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), we still had to numb ourselves to what was happening around us and we don’t want to be numb anymore. We want to feel and laugh and experience joy just like you do.
Sure, we can be gruff but please don’t assume that this means we don’t feel anything or know how to love. Many returning veterans have learned to shield their heart so helping us to learn to be vulnerable again helps us let love in.
I think a big part of what we can do for returning warriors, who have learned to shield their heart, is to help them be vulnerable again. And since a warrior’s real strength lies in their ability to be vulnerable, in a sense you’re helping them to be their warrior self again too. In the process, they are freed of the hardness of their heart, their numbness. By allowing them to be a warrior again, they’re going to become a yogi in the process since the two paths are so intertwined.
Much of the kind of yoga that veterans need lies more in the realm of traditional yoga than it does in a modern asana practice. Meditation, yoga nidra, pranayama, and work on Pratyahara are especially valuable in helping veterans be able to release from wartime experiences and open our hearts again.
Here are a few resources I highly recommend:
Warriors At Ease: Warriors at Ease brings the healing power of yoga and meditation to military communities around the world, especially those affected by combat-stress, PTSD, and trauma. We do this by training and deploying certified mind-body professionals to settings where they can enhance the health and well-being of service members, veterans, families, and healthcare staff. The faculty and board of Warriors at Ease includes several yoga teachers who are also veterans.
Soldier’s Heart: One of the original veteran’s mind-body-spirit support organizations founded by Dr. Edward Tick, author of the award-winning book War And The Soul (highly recommended for anyone working with vets and his next book,The Warrior’s Return, will be published in 2014. Their goal is to prepare families and communities in supporting and healing veterans – both those returning from current wars and those who fought in past wars. Our veterans’ project focuses on creating a network of community based services to facilitate a healthier and more successful reintegration of our nation’s veterans.
Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness: An organization of holistic healers (including yoga teachers) who are Marine veterans with their own Yoga For Veterans Program.
Give Back Yoga Foundation: Give Back Yoga Foundation believes in making yoga available to those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience the transformational benefits of this powerful practice. We do this by supporting and funding certified yoga teachers in all traditions to offer the teachings of yoga to under-served and under-resourced socio-economic segments of the community and inspire grassroots social change and community cooperation. They also have an excellent yoga resources for veterans which are sent free of charge – just follow this link.
Top Photo Cred: Yoga Across America